Vil­lage of the Liv­ing Dolls

VFX su­per­vi­sor Kevin Bail­lie shares the se­crets of build­ing life­like CG dolls for By Trevor Hogg Wel­come to Mar­wen.

Animation Magazine - - Vfx -

Avi­cious at­tack out­side of a bar re­sulted in Mark Ho­gan­camp be­ing in a coma for nine days, suf­fer­ing from se­vere mem­ory loss and hav­ing to learn how to eat, write and walk again. As a form of emo­tional and phys­i­cal ther­apy, Ho­gan­camp cre­ated and pho­tographed a 1:6 scale World War II Bel­gian town in his back­yard, chris­tened Mar­wen­col, pop­u­lated by dolls rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous peo­ple in his life.

The in­spi­ra­tional story was the sub­ject of the 2010 award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary Mar­wen­col and is now a fea­ture film di­rected by Robert Ze­meckis ( Back to the Fu­ture, Who Framed Roger Rab­bit). Con­tribut­ing most of the vfx work for the project were Frame­store, Atomic Fic­tion and Method Stu­dios. Over­see­ing the vis­ual ef­fects in Wel­come to Mar­wen was Kevin Bail­lie ( The Walk), who was tasked with turn­ing the main cast (Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Mer­ritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Diane Kruger, Eiza González, Gwen­do­line Christie and Leslie Ze­meckis) into liv­ing dolls.

“Bob is never one to rest on his lau­rels,” says Bail­lie, who first be­came in­volved with the project back in 2013. “He strives to push the en­ve­lope and to do some­thing that is new and cre­ative. This film was ab­so­lutely no ex­cep­tion! Wel­come to Mar­wen is not a Toy Story ren­di­tion of what hap­pened in real life. The level of hu­mor is de­signed to echo what Mark Ho­gan­camp goes through. Mark has to make it a lit­tle bit funny, oth­er­wise, he’s go­ing to be wal­low­ing in his sad­ness in per­pe­tu­ity, but it can’t be so funny as to make it not se­ri­ous. Steve Carell, Bob Ze­meckis and the whole cast did an amaz- ing job of rid­ing that line.”

Two el­e­ments were crit­i­cal to Ze­meckis: One was hav­ing the per­for­mances of the ac­tors come through with­out any loss of fidelity — es- pe­cially in their faces — and the other was main­tain­ing the look, feel and lack of irony in the Ho­gan­camp’s pho­tog­ra­phy.

Wel­come to the Dolls’ World

Ini­tially, the plan was to build over­sized sec­tions of Mar­wen on a gi­ant sound­stage and dig­i­tally give the ac­tors an ac­tion fig­ure form. “A year be­fore film­ing, we shot a test to prove this methodology, and it looked hor­ri­ble,” re- calls Bail­lie. “We went back to the draw­ing board and I showed Bob what a mo­tion-cap­ture ver­sion of the dolls would look like, and he re­acted badly to that. The dead­line to get this

film green­lit was fast ap­proach­ing and then an ‘Aha’ mo­ment oc­curred. We de­cided to do a CG doll driven by mo-cap and aug­ment it with parts from Steve Carell.”

The live-ac­tion per­for­mances needed to be in­te­grated onto rigid plas­tic dolls. “It was all about get­ting rid of the de­tail that was too hu­man, like fine wrin­kles and im­per­fec­tions, while keep­ing every sub­tlety of the mo­tion,” states Bail­lie. “What you see hap­pen­ing in the lips and eyes are a pixel to pixel rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what the ac­tor did trans­formed to the shape of a doll face.”

It was crit­i­cal to make sure that the cam­era an­gles and light­ing on the mo-cap stage ex­actly matched what was in the vir­tual world of the dolls. “We gave cin­e­matog­ra­pher C. Kim Miles [ The Flash] a bunch of real-time tools to pre­light the en­tire movie be­fore we ever shot a frame of it. One mon­i­tor on the mo-cap stage had what our ALEXA 65 cam­eras were see­ing and an­other one had the real-time view into this world where the dolls are pranc­ing around in this beau­ti­fully lit set­ting. Bob and C.K. could com­pare the two to make sure that there was a good match so we could pro­ceed.”

Emu­lat­ing the pho­tog­ra­phy cap­tured by Ho­gan­camp re­quired hav­ing a shal­low depth of field for the doll scenes. “We had to de­velop cus­tom work­flows, such as us­ing dig­i­tal tilt­shift lenses to make sure that two ac­tors off­set from each other were both in fo­cus,” ex­plains Bail­lie. “Now we’re pulling in old-school pho­tog­ra­phy tech­niques into the dig­i­tal film­mak­ing process. Then we also de­vel­oped a cus­tom diopter by draw­ing a cur­tain in a shot. Wher­ever that cur­tain is in depth is what’s in fo­cus in the shot. We could have a group of girls stand­ing in this big U shape in front of us with every sin­gle one of them in fo­cus, but still re­tain this shal­low depth of field that was crit­i­cal in main­tain­ing an authen­tic pho­to­graphic look.”

The team used Katana and Ren­der­man to ren­der the shots. “All of the depth of field was ren­dered in-cam­era in Ren­der­man,” says Bail­lie. “That de­ci­sion was made to make sure that we were cor­rectly set­ting fo­cus and an­i­mat­ing prop­erly.”

Cre­ation of the prac­ti­cal dolls be­gan with the vis­ual ef­fects de­part­ment. “We would scan our cast and do a paint over on a pho­to­graph of each ac­tor,” re­veals Bail­lie. “Makeup de­signer Bill Corso [ A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events] worked with our hair [Anne Morgan] and makeup [Ve Neill] de­sign­ers to cre­ate an im­age of what this doll should look like. Vis­ual ef­fects artists would sculpt this hero­ized doll ver­sion of every ac­tor by giv­ing them smaller noses or sharper chins. Bob would ap­prove the 3D model that was then sent to minia­tures ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Dave As­ling [ I, Ro­bot]; he and his team would 3D print th­ese dolls, and hand paint the face and head. For char­ac­ters who had hair they would plug in four hair strands at a time to pro­duce th­ese beau­ti­ful hand-man­u­fac­tured dolls. Those phys­i­cal dolls that you see in the movie matched the dig­i­tal ver­sions ex­actly be­cause they were born out of the same DNA.”

Pol­ish­ing the De­tails

Build­ing the town of Mar­wen and its sup­port­ing en­vi­ron­ments had its own share of chal­lenges. “Once the film got green­lit, pro­duc­tion de­signer Ste­fan Dechant [ Kong: Skull Is­land] came on­board and took that work we had done and made it 100 times bet­ter,” re­marks Bail­lie. “He was care­ful not to mi­cro­man­age the minia­ture mak­ers who phys­i­cally built the town on Dave As­ling’s team be­cause all of the knick­knacks that they brought to the ta­ble didn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­ist in World War II Bel­gium. No one has an Oldsmo­bile in Bel­gium, but that’s a car em­blem that Mark Ho­gan­camp has on his wall. Once they were done build­ing, we scanned and pho­tographed the liv­ing day­lights out of th­ese mod­els. When you’re in Mark’s imag­i­na­tion, what you see is a vil­lage that is based on the ac­tual phys­i­cal model, down to where the paint is peel­ing off of the walls of the church.”

Mar­wen it­self was built in the mid­dle of a lit­tle neigh­bor­hood. “We spent three days shoot­ing plates of the sur­round­ings at dif­fer­ent times of day and var­i­ous an­gles,” states Bail­lie. “We came back to a sound­stage, re­built Mark’s trailer and the town with a grass patch sur­round­ing it, and blue­screen for the scenes where the life-size Mark Ho­gan­camp and his friends are talk­ing. The plates were used for a 3D cre­ation of the whole en­vi­ron­ment sur­round­ing Mar­wen.”

Every shot has dust par­ti­cles float­ing in and out of the light and pollen in the out­door scenes. “It doesn’t steal the show but is crit­i­cal to giv­ing a vol­ume to this world,” says Bail­lie. “We de­vel­oped a spe­cial suite of tools to help our com­pos­i­tors do that work with­out hav­ing to go to other de­part­ments. This show didn’t have a gi­ant bud­get, so we had to get crafty short­en­ing feed­back loops.”

For the vfx su­per­vi­sor, two scenes stand out near the end of the film. One is the fi­nal bat­tle scene which fea­tures all the char­ac­ters and Ho­gie fly­ing a LEGO Delorean to save the day. The other finds Ho­gie feel­ing dev­as­tated and about to lose all hope. Bail­lie ex­plains, “I am ex­cited for peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence that scene: The per­for­mance Steve de­liv­ers is so sub­tle and emo­tional that I found my­self for­get­ting I was watch­ing dolls.” ◆

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